Australian colonial forces and family history

A guide to researching Australian military personnel serving in Australia and overseas between 1788 and 1902

Colonial volunteer forces and militia

Civilian Life: It should be remembered that the men in the Volunteer and Militia Forces offered their services part-time. Their Volunteer and Militia activities took up a portion of their time and they should not be considered as being members of a regular standing army. Records that document their activities in the civil realm such as: births, marriages and deaths, land records, occupational records and so on should be used for other aspects of family history research. For information about some records useful for family history research in Victoria consult the online Researching your Victorian ancestors Research Guide. A full list of the Library's online Research Guides can be found on our website.

If you discover that an ancestor was a member of a colonial military force, you may wish to consult the relevant sections below.

British troops were sent to Australia as a military force from 1788 and remained in the colonies until they were withdrawn in 1870. The Crimean War prompted thoughts of establishing colonial volunteer forces, however it was illegal to raise an armed force anywhere in the British Empire, except with the express approval of the Crown and with the establishment of a Parliamentary Act.

In Victoria, an Act was approved in 1854 to establish a Volunteer Corps not exceeding 2000 men. After fears of a French invasion of Britain in 1859, an Act amended in 1860 allowed a Volunteer Force of 10,000 men. From 1860 onwards most suburbs and towns had their own volunteer unit, usually a rifle corps. Following the withdrawal of the British garrison from the colonies in 1870 and the establishment of self-government, volunteer military forces developed independently within six Australian colonies using members of the colonial population.

In Victoria, all units were voluntary, with service part-time and unpaid until 1884. The Volunteer Forces were disbanded in 1884 and replaced by the Victorian Militia Force.

The Ballarat Volunteer Regiment - "Winning skirmishing team" 1874, H98.105/3516

Volunteer forces

Prior to Federation in 1901, responsibility for defence had rested with the six colonies. Victorian volunteers were first raised in November 1854 and were re-organised in 1863. Up until 1884, the colonial forces were comprised of unpaid volunteers.

Records of volunteer personnel, such as muster rolls for the years 1863 to 1883, are held at the National Archives of Australia. Their online guide, Colonial defence personnel records in Melbourne provides detailed information about their collections.

The Volunteer Forces muster rolls have been indexed for the years 1863 to 1883, however the index is not currently available publicly in any format. Searches of the index to the muster rolls can be requested by contacting the Victorian Colonial Infantry Association.

References to some volunteer personnel can also be found in government gazettes. The Victoria government gazette is available online through the State Library of Victoria's website.

The Index to Victorian Volunteer Forces personnel from the Victorian review 1860-1861: stating name, rank, regiment and company provides over 4,300 names of members of Victorian Volunteer Forces that were published in the Victoria review between 1860 and 1861 and is a useful resource for the period before 1863 when official government records were kept. The Victoria review can be searched and read online through Google Books.

It is also recommended to search the websites for the various Australian state archives for possible references to state based records.

Online guides provide valuable contextual information and references to available records. The following guides can be used as a starting point:
Colonial period, 1788-1901 - Australian War Memorial
Victorian Volunteer Forces, 1854-1884 - Museums Victoria
A brief history of artillery in Victoria - The Royal Australian Artillery Association (Victoria)
Tasmanian military records - Libraries Tasmania,  for references to their records.
Colonial forces in Australia - provides information about each Australian colony.

The following books are essential reading: For hearths and homes: citizen soldiering in Australia, 1854-1945 and Victorian land forces, 1853-1883 which provides information about each Victorian unit.

The Library's online catalogue provides images to a number of volunteer personnel and forces. Many suburbs and towns had their own volunteer force. You can search the Library's catalogue by geographical area of interest. The catalogue provides options for refining your search results by subject, resource type and/or creation date.

Contemporary newspapers published information about volunteer forces. Shooting competitions and parades were very popular events of the time and highly newsworthy. A growing number of newspapers have been digitised as part of the Trove database.

Militia Forces

The Volunteer Forces were disbanded in 1884 and were replaced by the Militia Forces.The Militia were paid and enrolled for a fixed term even though service was part time.

The Muster Rolls for the Militia from 1884 onwards are held at the National Archives of Australia, however, they are not indexed.

Two Militia units, the Victorian Mounted Rifles and the Victorian Rangers were classed purely as volunteers, therefore no official service records are available for them, however, lists of officers were published in the Victorian Naval and Military Forces List (some published as the Victorian Defence Forces List) for the years 1883, 1886 (online), 1887 (online), 1888, 1889 (online), 1896-1899. The 1899 list includes details about each person's career and date of birth.

The website for the Victorian Colonial Infantry Association and the Defending Victoria website contain information submitted by enthusiasts.

Additional resources

Printed annual army lists were official lists of names of officers published by the War Office between 1754 and 1879 and are available online for viewing through The National Archives' website.

Information about British forces in Victoria 1803-1870 can be found in the Defending Victoria website.

For hearths and home: citizen soldiering in Australia, 1854-1945.

A lion in the colony: an historical outline of the Tasmanian Colonial Volunteer Military Forces 1859-1901.

Indigenous Australians

The Defending Victoria website contains information about Aboriginal people in the Victorian Colonial Forces. You can find out more about researching Indigenous Australians' involvement under the Indigenous Australians tab in this guide.